Stop Flailing About

By Jeff Mallinson

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We sometimes suspect that we live in the worst era of all. By “we” I mean humans over many centuries. We lament that the glories of a bygone era have tarnished and eroded. In this thinking, we often fail to take account of the historical record. Make no mistake; there are most certainly serious crises all around us.But this is no time to despair. The history of civilization is filled with times when the structures of society got, well, restructured. Sometimes this put “our guys” into a good position with the elites and with the government. At other times, this resulted in persecution for conscientious folks. But almost never do we see that a time of crisis and cultural fragmentation was devoid of heroes. Rather, it was often in moments of crisis when true leadership, rich moral thinking, and monumental literature were created. By attending to history, we find that attention to the concept of virtue has been the most powerful way to combat the forces of darkness and evil.

On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, Dan and I trace the story of declining civilizations, and the heroes who arose to meet the challenges of their day. We examine the Axial Age, philosophy during the final centuries of the Roman Empire, and late medieval crises that led up to the Renaissance and Reformation. What we find in almost every situation is that attention to spiritual tranquility, and cultivation of virtue are key ingredients in the process of rebuilding and positive adaptation.

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Once, when asked how he could write creative and well-received books while the Nazis were bombing his country, C. S. Lewis pointed to history, noting that great writing and cultural creation took place as the Vikings brought fear and destruction to England. Good folks, quite literally, kept calm and carried on. That’s a sign of strength. What’s not a sign of strength? Flailing about. Flailing can take place at all sorts of levels. It happens in classes. It happens in the work place. It happens in our homes. Flailing is sometimes a way of excusing ourselves. We would have gotten that report in were it not for our many unjust obligations. We would have made sure the kids got their teeth brushed if it weren’t for a visit from the in-laws that threw things out of kilter at home. We would have voted were the zombie apocalypse not upon us.

Ah, there’s not really a zombie apocalypse? I suppose you’re right. Then why are we so fond of flailing about? Because it takes a momentous burden off our shoulders when we flail: it allows us (at least we often assume it allows us) to justify our failure to be heroic. Surely, whatever our struggles, what we face is not that much harder than the crises our ancestors have faced since the dawn of time. The only excuse I can entertain for a lack of heroism, is the idea that virtue itself has become a confused concept.

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For some, virtue is about personal purity. It’s about being morally upright despite the decadence of our peers, we think. But I disagree. I think virtue is not about purity but about purpose and concrete value. Virtue involves strength of character that makes a difference in the world. It is about recognizing with the Stoic philosopher Seneca (who was ordered to commit suicide by the wicked Nero), that we cannot control the stormy waves of fortune. But we can play the cards we’ve been dealt well. People can take our lives, our fortunes, and our prestige. But they can’t touch true virtue. And true virtue isn’t about making sure we don’t break any taboos. It’s about cultivating the kind of character that rescues our neighbors from harm.

“Virtue” starts with the Latin virtutem, with “man” or vir as its root. It comes to mean moral excellence, but it also has connotations of “manliness” and strength. We need encouragement and grace for this to be sure. God’s grace promises you that you are free through Christ. And now that you’re free, you can stop trying to look holy and start being heroic whether you look holy or not to your peers. Now that you’re free, therefore, it’s time to man up, and woman up to the challenges set before you. Look to the past to see how to do this with class, but don’t neglect your calling to cultivate and defend goodness, truth, and beauty in our cultural wasteland.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Sipping Meyer’s Dark Rum on ice, between chapters of Joel Bierman, A Case for Character.

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